God can be known.
It is the clear doctrine of the Scriptures that God can be known. Our Lord teaches that eternal life consists in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent. The Psalmist says, “In Judah is God known” (Ps. lxxvi. 1). Isaiah predicts, that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Is. xi. 9). Paul says even of the heathen, that they knew God, but did not like to retain that knowledge (Rom. i. 19, 20, 21, 28).
A. State of the Question.
It is, however, important distinctly to understand what is meant when it is said, God can be known.
- This does not mean that we can know all that is true concerning God. There were some among the ancient philosophers who taught that the nature of God can be as fully understood and determined as any other object of knowledge. The modern speculative school teaches the same doctrine. Among the propositions laid down by Spinoza, we find the following: “Cognitio æternæ et infinitæ essentiæ Dei, quam unaquæque idea involvit, est adæquata et perfecta.”Ethices, ii. prop. xlvi. edit. Jena, 1803, vol. ii. p. 119. Hegel says, that God is, only so far as He is known. The sin against the Holy Ghost, according to Hegel, is to deny that He can be known.See Mansel’s Limits of Religious Thought, Boston, 1859, p. 301. Cousin holds the same doctrine. “God in fact,” he says, “exists to us only in so far as He is known.”Sir William Hamilton’s Discussions, p. 16. Princeton Review on Cousin’s Philosophy, 1856.
According to Schelling, God is known in his own nature by direct intuition of the higher reason. He assumes that there is in man a power which transcends the limits of the ordinary consciousness (an Anschauungs Vermögen), which takes immediate cognizance of the Infinite. Hegel says that “Man knows God only so far as God knows Himself in man; this knowledge is God’s self-consciousness, but likewise a knowledge of the same by man, and this knowledge of God by man is the knowledge of man by God.”Werke, xii. p. 496, edit. Berlin, 1840. Cousin finds this knowledge in the common consciousness of men. That consciousness includes the knowledge of the Infinite as well as of the finite. We know the one just as we know the other, and we cannot know the one without knowing the other. These philosophers all admit that we could not thus know God unless we were ourselves God. Self-knowledge, with them, is the knowledge of God. Reason in man, according to Cousin, does not belong to his individuality. It is infinite, impersonal, and divine. Our knowledge of God, therefore, is only God knowing Himself. Of course it is in no such sense as this that the Scriptures and the Church teach that God can be known.
- It is not held that God, properly speaking, can be conceived of; that is, we cannot form a mental image of God. “All conception,” says Mr. Mansel,Prolegomena Logica, edit. Boston, 1860, p. 34. “implies imagination.” To have a valid conception of a horse, he adds, we must be able “to combine” the attributes which form “the definition of the animal” into “a representative image.” Conception is defined by Taylor in the same manner, as “the forming or bringing an image or idea into the mind by an effort of the will.” In this sense of the word it must be admitted that the Infinite is not an object of knowledge. We cannot form an image of infinite space, or of infinite duration, or of an infinite whole. To form an image is to limit, to circumscribe. But the infinite is that which is incapable of limitation. It is admitted, therefore, that the infinite God is inconceivable. We can form no representative image of Him in our minds. The word, however, is often, and perhaps commonly, used in a less restricted sense. To conceive is to think. A conception is therefore a thought and not necessarily an image. To say, therefore, that God is conceivable, in common language, is merely to say that He is thinkable. That is, that the thought (or idea) of God involves no contradiction or impossibility. We cannot think of a round square, or that a part is equal to the whole. But we can think that God is infinite and eternal.
- When it is said that God can be known, it is not meant that He can be comprehended. To comprehend is to have a complete and exhaustive knowledge of an object. It is to understand its nature and its relations. We cannot comprehend force, and specially vital force. We see its effect, but we cannot understand its nature or the mode in which it acts. It would be strange that we should know more of God than of ourselves, or of the most familiar objects of sense. God is past finding out. We cannot understand the Almighty unto perfection. To comprehend is (1.) To know the essence as well as the attributes of an object. (2.) It is to know not some only, but all of its attributes. (3.) To know the relation in which these attributes stand to each other and to the substance to which they belong. (4.) To know the relation in which the object known stands to all other objects. Such knowledge is clearly impossible in a creature, either of itself or of anything out of itself. It is, however, substantially thus that the transcendentalists claim to know God.
Our Knowledge of God Partial.
- It is included in what has been said, that our knowledge of God is partial and inadequate. There is infinitely more in God than we have any idea of; and what we do know, we know imperfectly. We know that God knows; but there is much in his mode of knowing, and in its relation to its objects, which we cannot understand. We know that He acts; but we do not know how He acts, or the relation which his activity bears to time, or things out of Himself. We know that He feels; that He loves, pities, is merciful, is gracious; that He hates sin. But this emotional element of the divine nature is covered with an obscurity as great, but no greater, than that which rests over his thoughts or purposes. Here again our ignorance, or rather, the limitation of our knowledge concerning God, finds a parallel in our ignorance of ourself. There are potentialities in our nature of which, in our present state of existence, we have no idea. And even as to what we are now, we know but little. We know that we perceive, think, and act; we do not know how. It is perfectly inscrutable to us how the mind takes cognizance of matter; how the soul acts on the body, or the body on the mind. But because our knowledge of ourselves is thus partial and imperfect, no sane man would assert that we have no self-knowledge.
The common doctrine on this subject is clearly expressed by Des Cartes:Epistolæ, I., cx., edit. Amsterdam, 1682. “Sciri potest, Deum esse infinitum et omnipotentem, quanquam anima nostra, utpote finita, id nequeat comprehendere sive concipere; eodem nimirum modo, quo montem manibus tangere possumus, sed non ut arborem, aut aliam quampiam rem brachiis nostris non majorem amplecti: comprehendere enim est cogitatione complecti; ad hoc autem, ut sciamus aliquid, sufficit, ut illud cogitatione attingamus.”
Even SpinozaEpistola, lx., vol. i. p. 659, edit. Jena, 1802. says: “Ad quæstionem tuam, an de Deo tam claram, quam de triangulo habeam ideam, respondeo affirmando. Non dico, me Deum omnino cognoscere; sed me quædam ejus attributa, non autem omnia, neque maximam intelligere partem, et certum est, plurimorum ignorantiam, quorundam eorum habere notitiam, non impedire. Quum Euclidis elementa addiscerem, primo tres trianguli angulos duobus rectis æquari intelligebam; hancque trianguli proprietatem clare percipiebam, licet multarum aliarum ignarus essem.”
While, therefore, it is admitted not only that the infinite God is incomprehensible, and that our knowledge of Him is both partial and imperfect; that there is much in God which we do not know at all, and that what we do know, we know very imperfectly; nevertheless our knowledge, as far as it goes, is true knowledge. God really is what we believe Him to be, so far as our idea of Him is determined by the revelation which He has made of Himself in his works, in the constitution of our nature, in his word, and in the person of his Son. To know is simply to have such apprehensions of an object as conform to what that object really is. We know what the word Spirit means. We know what the words infinite, eternal, and immutable, mean. And, therefore, the sublime proposition, pregnant with more truth than was ever compressed in any other sentence, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and immutable,” conveys to the mind as distinct an idea, and as true (i.e., trustworthy) knowledge, as the proposition “The human soul is a finite spirit.” In this sense God is an object of knowledge. He is not the unknown God, because He is infinite. Knowledge in Him does not cease to be knowledge because it is omniscience; power does not cease to be power because it is omnipotence; any more than space ceases to be space because it is infinite.
B. How do we know God?
How does the mind proceed in forming its idea of God? The older theologians answered this question by saying that it is by the way of negation, by the way of eminence, and by the way of causality. That is, we deny to God any limitation; we ascribe to Him every excellence in the highest degree; and we refer to Him as the great First Cause every attribute manifested in his works. We are the children of God, and, therefore, we are like Him. We are, therefore, authorized to ascribe to Him all the attributes of our own nature as rational creatures, without limitation, and to an infinite degree. If we are like God, God is like us. This is the fundamental principle of all religion. This is the principle which Paul assumed in his address to the Athenians (Acts xvii. 29): “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” For the same reason we ought not to think that He is simple being, or a mere abstraction, a name for the moral order of the universe, or the unknown and unknowable cause of all things, — mere inscrutable force. If we are his children, He is our Father, whose image we bear, and of whose nature we partake. This, in the proper sense of the word, is Anthropomorphism, a word much abused, and often used in a bad sense to express the idea that God is altogether such a one as ourselves, a being of like limitations and passions. In the sense, however, just explained, it expresses the doctrine of the Church and of the great mass of mankind. Jacobi“Von den göttlichen Dingen,” Werke, iii. pp. 422, 423, edit. Leipzig, 1816. well says: “We confess, therefore, to an Anthropomorphism inseparable from the conviction that man bears the image of God; and maintain that besides this Anthropomorphism, which has always been called Theism, is nothing but atheism or fetichism.”
C. Proof that this Method is Trustworthy.
That this method of forming an idea of God is trustworthy, is proved, —
- Because it is a law of nature. Even in the lowest form of fetichism the life of the worshipper is assumed to belong to the object which he worships. The power dreaded is assumed to possess attributes like our own. In like manner under all the forms of polytheism, the gods of the people have been intelligent personal agents. It is only in the schools of philosophy that we find a different method of forming an idea of the Godhead. They have substituted τὸ ὃν for ὁ ὢν, τὸ θεῖον for ὁ Θεός, τὸ ἀγαθόν for ὁ ἀγαθός. It is here as with regard to the knowledge of the external world. The mass of mankind believe that things are what they perceive them to be. This philosophers deny. They affirm that we do not perceive the things themselves, but certain ideas, species, or images of the things; that we have, and can have, no knowledge of what the things themselves really are. So they say we can have no knowledge of what God is; we only know that we are led to think of Him in a certain way, but we are not only not authorized to believe that our idea corresponds to the reality, but, say they, it is certain that God is not what we take Him to be. As the people are right in the one case, so are they in the other. In other words, our conviction that God is what He has revealed Himself to be, rests on the same foundation as our conviction that the external world is what we take it to be. That foundation is the veracity of consciousness, or the trustworthiness of the laws of belief which God has impressed upon our nature. “Invincibility of belief,” according to Sir William Hamilton, “is convertible with the truth of belief,”Philosophy, edit. Wight, New York, 1854, p. 233. although, unhappily, on this subject, he did not adhere to his own principle, “That what is by nature necessarily believed to be, truly is.”Ibid. p. 226. No man has more nobly or more earnestly vindicated this doctrine, which is the foundation of all science and of all faith. “Consciousness,” he says, “once convicted of falsehood, an unconditioned scepticism, in regard to the character of our intellectual being, is the melancholy but only rational result. Any conclusion may now with impunity be drawn against the hopes and the dignity of human nature. Our personality, our immateriality, our moral liberty, have no longer an argument for their defence. ‘Man is the dream of a shadow.’ God is the dream of that dream.”Ibid. p. 234. The only question, therefore, is, Are we invincibly led to think of God as possessing the attributes of our rational nature? This cannot be denied; for universality proves invincibility of belief. And it is a historical fact that men have universally thus thought of God. Even Mr. ManselLimits of Religious Thought, edit. Boston, 1859, pp. 56, 57. exclaims against the transcendentalists, “Fools, to dream that man can escape from himself, that human reason can draw aught but a human portrait of God.” True, he denies the correctness of that portrait; or, at least, he asserts that we cannot know whether it is correct or not. But this is not now the question. He admits that we are forced by the constitution of our nature thus to think of God. And by the fundamental principle of all true philosophy, what we are forced to believe must be true. It is true, therefore, that God really is what we take Him to be, when we ascribe to Him the perfections of our own nature, without limitation, and to an infinite degree.
Our Moral Nature demands this Idea of God.
- It has already been shown, when speaking of the moral argument for the existence of God, that all men are conscious of their accountability to a being superior to themselves, who knows what they are and what they do, and who has the will and purpose to reward or punish men according to their works. The God, therefore, who is revealed to us in our nature, is a God who knows, and wills, and acts; who rewards and punishes. That is, He is a person; an intelligent, voluntary agent, endowed with moral attributes. This revelation of God must be true. It must make known to us what God really is, or our nature is a lie. All this Mr. Mansel, who holds that God can not be known, admits. He admits that a sense of dependence on a superior power is “a fact of the inner consciousness;” that this superior power is “not an inexorable fate, or immutable law, but a Being having at least so far the attributes of personality, that He can show favour or severity to those dependent upon Him, and can be regarded by them with the feelings of hope, and fear, and reverence, and gratitude.”Limits of Religious Thought, etc., p. 120. No man, however, is, or can be grateful to the sun, or to the atmosphere, or to unintelligent force. Gratitude is a tribute of a person to a person. Again, the same author admits that “the moral reason, or will, or conscience of man, call it by what name we please, can have no authority save as implanted in him by some higher spiritual Being, as a law emanating from a law-giver.”Ibid. p. 121. “We are thus compelled,” he says, “by the consciousness of moral obligation, to assume the existence of a moral [and of course of a personal] Deity, and to regard the absolute standard of right and wrong as constituted by the nature of that Deity.”Ibid. p. 122. Our argument from these facts is, that if our moral nature compels us to believe that God is a person, He must be a person, and consequently that we arrive at a true knowledge of God by attributing to Him the perfections of our own nature.
Our Religious Nature makes the same Demand.
- The argument from our religious, as distinct from our moral nature, is essentially the same. Morality is not all of religion. The one is as much a law and necessity of our nature as the other. To worship, in the religious sense of the word, is to ascribe infinite perfection to its object. It is to express to that object out acknowledgments for the blessings we enjoy, and to seek their continuance; it is to confess, and praise, and pray, and to adore. We cannot worship the law of gravity, or unconscious force, or the mere order of the universe. Our religious nature, in demanding an object of supreme reverence, love, and confidence, demands a personal God, a God clothed with the attributes of a nature like our own; who can hear our confessions, praises, and prayers; who can love, and be loved; who can supply our wants, and fill all our capacities for good. Thus again it appears that unless our whole nature is a contradiction and a falsehood, we arrive at a true knowledge of God when we ascribe to Him the perfections of our own nature.
Mr. Mansel admits that our nature does demand a personal and moral Deity; but, he says, “the very conception of a moral nature is in itself the conception of a limit, for morality is the compliance with a law; and a law, whether imposed from within or from without, can only be conceived to operate by limiting the range of possible actions.”Limits of Religious Thought, etc., p. 127. In like manner he says, “The only human conception of personality is that of limitation.” Therefore, if God be infinite, he can neither be a person, nor possess moral attributes. This is the argument of Strauss, and of all other pantheists, against the doctrine of a personal God. Mr. Mansel admits the force of the argument, and says we must renounce all hope of knowing what God is, and be content with “regulative knowledge,” which teaches not what God really is, but what He wills us to think Him to be. We are thus forbidden to trust to our necessary beliefs. We must not regard as true what God by the constitution of our nature forces us to believe. This is to subvert all philosophy and all religion, and to destroy the difference between the rational and the irrational. Why is this contradiction between reason and conscience, between our rational and moral nature, assumed to exist? Simply because philosophers choose to give such a definition of morality and personality that neither can be predicated of an infinite Being. It is not true that either morality or personality imply any limitation inconsistent with absolute perfection. We do not limit God when we say He cannot be irrational as well as rational, unconscious as well as conscious, finite as well as infinite, evil as well as good. The only limitation admitted is the negation of imperfection. Reason is not limited when we say it cannot be unreason; or spirit, when we say that it is not matter; or light, when we say it is not darkness; or space, when we say it is not time. We do not, therefore, limit the Infinite, when we exalt Him in our conceptions from the unconscious to the conscious, from the unintelligent to the intelligent, from an impersonal something to the absolutely perfect personal Jehovah. All these difficulties arise from confounding the ideas of infinite and all.
- The fourth argument on this subject is, that if we are not justified in referring to God the attributes of our own nature, then we have no God. The only alternative is anthropomorphism (in this sense) or Atheism. An unknown God, a God of whose nature and of whose relation to us we know nothing, to us is nothing. It is a historical fact that those who reject this method of forming our idea of God, who deny that we are to refer to Him the perfections of our own nature, have become atheists. They take the word “spirit,” and strip from it consciousness, intelligence, will, and morality; and the residue, which is blank nothing, they call God. Hamilton and Mansel take refuge from this dreadful conclusion in faith. They say that reason forbids the ascription of these, or of any other attributes, to the Infinite and Absolute, but that faith protests against this conclusion of the reason. Such protest, however, is of no account, unless it be rational. When Kant proved that there was no rational evidence of the existence of God, and fell back from the speculative to the practical reason (i.e., from reason to faith), his followers universally gave up all faith in a personal God. No man can believe in the impossible. And if reason pronounces that it is impossible that the Infinite should be a person, faith in His personality is an impossibility. This Mr. Mansel does not admit. For while he says that it is a contradiction to affirm the Infinite to be a person, or to possess moral attributes, he nevertheless says that, “Anthropomorphism is the indispensable condition of all human theology;”Limits of Religious Thought, etc., p. 261. and he quotes from Kant“Kritik der Praktischen Vernunft.” Works, edit. Rosenkranz, vol. viii. p. 282. this passage: “We may confidently challenge all natural theology to name a single distinctive attribute of the Deity, whether denoting intelligence or will, which, apart from anthropomorphism, is anything more than a mere word, to which not the slightest notion can be attached, which can serve to extend our theoretical knowledge.” It is greatly to be lamented that men should teach that the only way in which it is possible for us to form an idea of God, leads to no true knowledge. It does not teach us what God is, but what we are forced against reason to think He is.
Argument from the Revelation of God in Nature.
- A fifth argument is from the fact that the works of God manifest a nature like our own. It is a sound principle that we must refer to a cause the attributes necessary to account for its effects. If the effects manifest intelligence, will, power, and moral excellence, these attributes must belong to the cause. As, therefore, the works of God are a revelation of all these attributes on a most stupendous scale, they must belong to God in an infinite degree. This is only saying that the revelation made of God in the external world agrees with the revelation which He has made of himself in the constitution of our own nature. In other words, it proves that the image of himself which He has enstamped on our nature is a true likeness.
Argument from Scripture.
- The Scriptures declare God to be just what we are led to think He is, when we ascribe to Him the perfections of our own nature in an infinite degree. We are self-conscious, so is God. We are spirits, so is He. We are voluntary agents, so is God. We have a moral nature, miserably defaced indeed, God has moral excellence in infinite perfection. We are persons, so is God. All this the Scriptures declare to be true. The great primal revelation of God is as the “I am,” the personal God. All the names and titles given to Him; all the attributes ascribed to Him; all the works attributed to Him, are revelations of what He truly is. He is the Elohim, the Mighty One, the Holy One, the Omnipresent Spirit; He is the creator, the preserver, the governor of all things. He is our Father. He is the hearer of prayer; the giver of all good. He feeds the young ravens. He clothes the flowers of the field. He is Love. He so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him might not perish but have everlasting life. He is merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth. He is a present help in every time of need; a refuge, a high tower, an exceeding great reward. The relations in which, according to the Scriptures, we stand to God, are such as we can sustain only to a being who is like ourselves. He is our ruler, and father, with whom we can commune. His favour is our life, his loving-kindness better than life. This sublime revelation of God in his own nature and in his relation to us is not a delusion. It is not mere regulative truth, or it would be a deceit and mockery. It makes God known to us as He really is. We therefore know God, although no creature can understand the Almighty unto perfection.
Argument from the Manifestation of God in Christ.
- Finally, God has revealed Himself in the person of his Son. No man knoweth the Father but the Son; and he to whom the Son shall reveal Him. Jesus Christ is the true God. The revelation which He made of Himself was the manifestation of God. He and the Father are one. The words of Christ were the words of God. The works of Christ were the works of God. The love, mercy, tenderness, the forgiving grace, as well as the holiness, the severity and power manifested by Christ, were all manifestations of what God truly is. We see, therefore, as with our own eyes, what God is. We know that although infinite and absolute, He can think, act, and will; that He can love and hate; that He can hear prayer and forgive sins, that we can have fellowship with Him, as one person can commune with another. Philosophy must veil her face in the presence of Jesus Christ, as God manifest in the flesh. She may not presume in that presence to say that God is not, and is not known to be, what Christ himself most clearly was. This doctrine that God is the object of certain and true knowledge lies at the foundation of all religion, and therefore must never be given up.